Meet the game's best new slugger
One afternoon during spring training, I asked a major leaguer to identify the best player in baseball. It’s the sort of question I like to pose to players, because I value their opinion. They are on the field. I am not.
Anyway, the reply was immediate: Albert Pujols. This answer led to a larger conversation about methods of evaluating a hitter’s production.
“The proper way is adding RBIs and runs scored and subtracting the home runs, because you’d get double credit for that,” the player explained. “Then you divide that by the number of games played.
“If your index is over 1, or close to 1, that’s amazing. If you had nine players like that on your team, then you’re scoring nine runs per game, and that’s never happened, ever, in the history of baseball.”
The thoughtful speaker: Jose Bautista.
Two months later, there is plenty we can say about him — beginning with the fact that his index is indeed over 1.
In fact, it is well over 1. After singling twice and scoring in Toronto’s 4-2 win over Detroit on Monday night, his index is 1.40, best in the American League and second only to Lance Berkman in the majors.
To put that in perspective, consider that Josh Hamilton and Joey Votto checked in at 1.23 and 1.21, respectively, last season. And they won MVP awards.
When Pujols was the unanimous choice as the 2009 NL MVP, his index was 1.33.
You get the idea.
“He’s arguably the best player in the game right now,” Blue Jays manager John Farrell said.
If that sounds like a bold statement, it shouldn’t. Farrell is a former big-league pitcher who spent the past four seasons as Boston’s pitching coach. He has watched the best hitters in baseball from the mound and the dugout. And more than once on Monday, he said of Bautista, “I have not seen anything like this.”
On Monday, I updated Bautista on his performance according to the, uh, “Bautista Index.” His reaction was similar to that of baseball fans who have witnessed his on-field exploits: initial disbelief, followed by acceptance, and finally an appropriate measure of awe.
“Are you subtracting the homers?” Bautista asked, almost incredulous. “I don’t think it should be that high. Divided by the games?”
Yes. Math was never my best subject. But I didn’t mess up this one.
The Blue Jays have played 41 games. Bautista missed eight — three for the birth of his daughter, five because of a stiff neck.
“Oh yeah,” he said. “I forget about that. I was thinking 41 games.”
And then Bautista smiled, as if to acknowledge what the numbers have already told us: He is one of the best players on the planet — certainly in the top 10, perhaps even higher than that.
Let’s take a moment to contemplate what this means: Bautista, 30, was one of the great stories in baseball last year. He led the majors with 54 home runs. He made his first All-Star team. He did it all while playing through a sports hernia he sustained in April. He became a star, the embodiment of hope for journeymen everywhere, despite a baseball card that tells you four organizations gave up on him during the 2004 regular season alone. The Dominican slugger found a home in Canada — along with a five-year, $65 million contract.
He even has a great baseball nickname: Joey Bats.
Last year, his index was 1.11. This year’s 1.40 merely suggests to Bautista that he is having a “pretty good” season and “helping my team win.” But with numbers like this, why bother with humility? He’s leading the majors (again) with 16 home runs. He’s first in walks. He’s first in OPS. He leads the American League in batting average at .370. He’s playing Gold Glove-caliber defense in right, despite spending most of this spring as a third baseman.
The pennant races won’t be decided for months. The first managerial firing has yet to occur. But as of this early date, with frost warnings persisting in some corners of the Lower 48, we have the answer to one of the summer’s most pressing questions: Can Jose Bautista repeat what he did last year?
The answer is no.
He’s even better.
“This game naturally brings critics, always wondering, ‘What’s next?’ Can he do it again?’” Farrell said. “Well, we’re seeing it. He’s doing it. It’s not a fluke. That’s the thing that really stands out: You see the preparation, the ability to adjust, the game awareness. He’s made obvious changes to the timing in his swing, going back to August of ’09, when they really took hold. The performance has been unlike anybody else.”
How unlike? Well, Bautista hit 63 home runs from May 15, 2010, through May 15, 2011. That was the most in the majors during the period, spanning 157 games played.
Bonds, McGwire and Sosa aside, when there is a 60-homer pace over the equivalent of a full season, it’s time for us to clear the cobwebs from our collective conscience on the subject of home run records.
When last year’s spike raised (unfair) suspicions about performance-enhancing drugs, Bautista answered the questions, patiently and completely. “I know what the history of baseball was,” he told me last September. “And if being successful and hitting home runs is going to make people ask me questions, I don’t care if I have to answer them, because I have nothing to hide. So, I’m not worried about that.”
Steadily, appreciation has supplanted skepticism. Bautista entered this season as a known commodity to American League pitchers, yet he is hitting more than 100 points higher than he did last year. And he’s doing it as Toronto’s No. 3 hitter, with the cleanup committee behind him plodding through the season with a .715 OPS, the AL’s fourth-worst in that spot.
Teams have little incentive to pitch to Bautista. They are still doing it more often than they probably should. And he is more adept than ever at sending mistakes into the outfield stands. He crushed five home runs in last weekend’s series sweep of the Minnesota Twins, including three in Sunday’s win. Two of the five went to the opposite field — a rarity for him … until now.
“Loud noises all over the place,” teammate Aaron Hill said.
“He’s worth the price of admission, just to watch four at-bats, home or road,” Farrell said.
“The more you watch him,” Toronto bullpen coach Pat Hentgen admired, “the more he grows on you.”
Bautista has gone from zero-to-superstar faster than just about any other player in recent baseball history. Monday’s game provided further evidence. Detroit fans are not the type to boo, reserving their jeers for Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez — the rich and famous of the rich and famous.
But when Bautista stepped to the plate during the first inning on Monday night, audible boos emanated from the sparse, bundled-up crowd on a 44-degree night.
It happens when you’re a superstar.
“I guess so,” Bautista said with a shrug.
Which brings us back to Pujols. During that spring conversation, Bautista insisted that he didn’t belong in a discussion of the best 10 players in baseball, because he hadn’t been great enough for long enough. Of Pujols, he said, “The consistency sets him apart. Not only is he consistent with a good year, he’s consistent with GREAT years.”
Now that hallmark — consistent greatness — is becoming Bautista’s own, even if he isn’t quite comfortable with comparisons to the St. Louis slugger.
“I wouldn’t put myself in that category yet,” Bautista said. “He’s done it for 10 years, and I’ve (just) managed to turn the corner.”
Maybe so. But look at it this way: Bautista is nine months younger than Pujols, offers more defensive flexibility and is having (by far) the better 2011 season. Had Bautista not signed the contract extension in February, he would have become a free agent, along with Pujols, after this season.
The question of Bautista-or-Pujols could have been one of the biggest dilemmas for teams this off-season. Now, it exists only in theory. That is excellent news for the Blue Jays … and Pujols.